Some Things I Learned Along the Way

You will get lost.

It was the first morning of my post-graduation, clichéd but nevertheless important backpacking Euro-trip. I planned to leave my dad in Switzerland and make my way to Paris by train in order to rendezvous with my college roommate/best gal/heterosexual life partner. We HAD a plan, a great plan, meticulously crafted with meeting points and backup plans. It should have gone off without a hitch – until I got on the wrong train.

I intended to head to Paris from Geneva, Switzerland by train. It was a quick three-hour ride north and I was excited for a cozy nap that would surely aid in hangover recovery. I would meet up with Mary-Katelyn at the Sheraton in the Charles De Gaulle airport. We would make it to the city with enough time to see the sites, grab a glass of wine, and watch the shops reopen for nighttime business.

After I located my seat reservation only to find a grumpy, older gentleman occupying it, I sat in an empty spot and fell fast asleep – visions of a happy reunion and baguettes greeting me in the very near future.

A few hours later I awoke to boisterous conversation from the four Frenchmen now seated across the aisle. Considering I still had a good hour before arriving in Paris, I attempted to strike up a conversation. The chatter did everything but flow between both parties and finally I was able to communicate that I was headed to the airport to meet up with a friend. As I told them which airport, a look of pity came over their faces and one by one they burst into laughter. I was not headed to Paris but instead to Marseilles, all the way in the south of France and, as my well informed French traveling companions divulged, in order to get back to Paris I would have to get off at the next stop, which was coincidentally the last stop, and board a train going the opposite direction towards my original destination.

At the time, I wanted to cry. I was hung-over, thirsty, had not yet converted my Swiss Franks to Euro, and could not contact MK to let her know I would be so incredibly late to our arranged meeting point. So I took a deep breath, smiled at the pitying looks of my cabin mates, and took a look out the window. I was seeing sights I never planned on seeing and would probably never see again; the sprawling French county side, turned sepia-tone through the tint of the window and the afternoon sun, the locals from a small town not that dissimilar from where I grew up, and after a long hour, the white washed train station with the sleepy ticket master who gave me a free trip back up North because I could only communicate with him through wild hand gestures and tired smiles.

Getting lost is really just a state of mind. In fact, it is a chance to make grand, weird, sometimes-uncomfortable memories to regale friends and family with later on. Fate has taken you here, so prop your feet up, grab a glass of wine, and relax. You will reach your destination eventually but in the mean time, release all of that anxiety and be present in the moment. You are, in fact, not lost, but exactly where you’re supposed to be.

You will spend way over your budget

One of my biggest concerns with this backpacking trip was that I didn’t save enough money. I knew my budget wasn’t going to allow for six course meals, private tours, or shopping sprees on Las Ramlas but I at least needed my budget to include food and lodging for a month. Being a waitress and recent college grad, I wasn’t exactly rolling in the dough but I didn’t want that to stop me from having a post-college pre-workforce adventure. So I scrimped and saved and drank two-buck chuck and sold off possessions on craigslist that I talked myself into no longer needing. I was all prepared to eat at corner markets, drink cheap wine on park benches, and stay in ultra low budget hostels – cold showers and bed bugs included.

After the first few days of staying within my budget, I began to feel like the love child of Daddy Warbucks and Jay Gatsby, if science/religion allowed for such a thing. I had more money than I thought I would (if only this happened to me all the time) and so I started to spring for goods and services outside of my budget; a nice lunch by the Trevi Fountain, a Pedi-cab ride when our feet grew tired, rounds of beers for new foreign friends, you get the picture. I had entered vacation mode and there was no turning back.

Upon returning to the states, my bank account was in a sorry state and I owed next months rent in just ten days, which was especially problematic seeing as how I spent next months rent gallivanting through Europe. But for some reason it was okay. It is only money and there is always more to be made if you want or need to make it.

So remember, when your appetite inevitable shifts from canned sardines to caviar and you wake up to find a thirty euro cab fare receipt in your pocket and a souvenir beer mug on the side table, don’t beat yourself up over it. You, my friend, are now in vacation mode and want to have a kick ass time so do it. Budget and plan and budget some more, but when you see a cheap Vespa for rent, go for it and drive through a tiny Italian beach town, the hot wind stinging your eyes, cheeks, and nose as you push the shaking scooter to its limits. You will spend a little more money but you will have a hell of a time doing it. Linger over the memories, not the price of them.

Ask and you shall receive.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help. It was incredibly intimidating walking into a train or bus station and seeing timetables and schedules in a different language. Often enough, even finding the station was a feat unto itself. In Florence, my dear sweet MK and I needed to catch a train to Rome by midday in order to arrive at our hostel by check in time. We figured a direct route like that would have multiple train options throughout the day, and as now veteran train travelers, we were confident in our ability to make it to Rome with time to spare. We were sorely mistaken.

After departing our host’s house in the center of Florence, we crossed one of the many bridges and strolled towards the station, keeping an eye out for a lunch spot with cheap wine. Of course, not having to look far at all, we found one and unloaded our stuff, kicked back, and soon enough, had two bellies full of pasta, the train schedule a distant thought. As we gathered up our things, we joked about possibly missing the last train to Rome or having to wait around at the station for hours for the next train to arrive. We spit balled all sorts of annoying possibilities, and laughed in the faces of each one. We thought we hit the jackpot when we arrived with just two minutes to spare and ran to buy our tickets from the always confusing, constantly incorrect TrenItalia automated machine. Of course we weren’t allowed to purchase tickets for a train leaving in two minutes. We looked around desperately and saw our train sitting sleepily in platform 11, delayed five minutes – by the grace of God/universe/karma/whatever you believe. We pulled a well dressed Italian man over to the machine and in broken Italian were able to understand that 1. No we could not buy tickets for that train any longer 2. The next train goes to a different station that is an hour outside of the center of Rome and 3. It costs an arm and a leg if you are caught hopping on a train without a ticket (upwards of fifty euro in Italy plus the cost of the ticket). So, armed with this information, we did the only logical thing; ran to our train to ask someone else for help, searching for an answer we wanted.

Once again by the grace of some cosmic being, the train master was sitting outside the train, enjoying a cigarette and a chat with a younger ticket checker. We hedged our bets and decided to ask the young man what to do if we didn’t have tickets but needed the train, assuming he spoke some English. He laughed, threw up his hands and walked away, not wanting to be bothered by two sweaty, red faced Americans with backpacks the size of kindergarteners. We then turned to the train master and he took pity on us and allowed us to board the train for the price of just a ticket, which he gladly sold us once we were nestled into our seats on the right train.

As Americans and even as humans born into this generation, asking for help is not something that comes naturally to most of us. We want to be able to figure it out because we are usually able to. We have access to all the information we need and at the touch of just a few buttons we now have the address to the movie theatre, the closing time of the coffee shop, the schedule of the city bus, etc. When traveling, this information isn’t always provided online, especially in smaller towns. So even if you purchase an international data plan, paper maps and info from locals are still the way to go. They have the most accurate and up to date information. They have the genuine view of the town.

While the restaurant may be closed during the afternoon, they may just invite you to join the family table and eat leftover fare from the lunch rush and drink cold white wine that tickles your tongue and provides the utmost compliment to the squid and fennel salad tossed in crisp lemon juice. Ask and you may get a cold shoulder, an answer to your question, or something unexpectedly better than you could have ever imagined.

If you are traveling with a partner, you will, at the very least, disagree.

I was one of the lucky ones. I got to backpack with my very best friend, college roommate, second mother to my dog, butter to my baguette. We were both warned, over and over, by those who knew us and those who thought they did that we would fight. Traveling is stressful, costly, uncomfortable, and annoying at its worst moments. You will take out minor frustrations on the person that is always there, at the person that can sometimes be the cause of those frustrations. Like I said before, we were the lucky ones.

Mk and I found ourselves with an extra night in southern Italy before we departed the next day for Barcelona, the last stop of our trip. We had saved a good deal of money in Lecce, Italy by staying with a host family and Mk decided she would splurge on a hotel for us, close to the train station and the airport (we thought). After arriving in Brindisi we assumed our hotel would be well marked and right off the main thoroughfare. And in keeping with the theme of our trip, we soon learned otherwise. The hotel was actually a private apartment, labeled with a scrap of white paper, taped over a buzzer, located at the front door of a non descript building, down a windy one way street. The “front desk” was in fact this six foot four Mr. Clean if Mr. Clean spoke Italian, had an intimidating scar on his left cheek, and wore camouflage shorts. He greeted us gruffly, annoyed by the fact that we requested a 3 o’clock check in time which we assumed was perfectly normal but Francesco Clean assumed we meant 3 a.m. not 15:00.

Francesco crammed us into the elevator that was meant for possibly three wiry European women, not two travelers in unwashed clothes with rucksacks and a sizeable, annoyed man. Mary-Katelyn unwittingly boarded the elevator face first and now had her nose an inch away from Francesco’s armpit, unable to turn around. I luckily walked in backwards and stood facing the door, all of us holding our breath as the elevator gradually and difficulty climbed up to the seventh floor.

We finally entered our room to discover some pretty sweet digs, and an air conditioner that did not want to be figured out. Nonetheless, it was nice to get settled and trace out a plan for dinner. To put in bluntly, Brindisi was like a smaller, sunnier Baltimore; its citizens with sizeable chips on their shoulders, bitter about something but not at all shy about showing it. As we set out to find the one market in town (at least the only one listed on google maps), we met these types of people on the streets and were not greeted with sweet smiles like we had been only twenty kilometers south, but instead were addressed with stares, cat calls, and indecipherable Italian phrases. It was an agitating, long walk to the market and once we arrived to find it closed, the last of the cheery mood evaporated and we trudged back to our hotel, muttering back and forth about what we were going to do for dinner.

This was the only time we disagreed. Mk wanted to just pop in somewhere and ‘grab a slice’ – her favorite thing to do no matter what part of the world she is in and a surprisingly hard task in Italy where we found no pizza shops that had just a quick slice for a few bucks. I wanted a home cooked meal, as our place had a kitchen, and some wine while we watched non-English subtitled Italian TV and enjoyed our hotel room. I mostly just didn’t want to be out in Brindisi as the sun went down. We were irritated with each other and the situation so we went our separate ways for a few hours. I hit the town again to search for another market and Mk buried herself in her book, and within a few minutes, champagne from the mini-bar. I returned a few hours later and bore my gifts to a cheery albeit worried traveling companion who hugged me and opened some wine. We drank and dined and put what little discord there was behind us.

If you are traveling by yourself, you will feel alone (sometimes)

Old cities have a way of making me feel small. Not small in the sense of intelligence or ability or even in a one fish giant ocean sense, but small in experience and impact. Take Paris, for example; down almost every street lies some illustrious story waiting to be uncovered, relived, and remembered. Historically speaking, European cities have housed, fostered, and encouraged many ideas, inspirations, and revolutions. The small feeling sets in after this realization, after the noise of the night fades out and bar-goers have stumbled home and taxis are parked at the end of their shifts. You begin to wonder: how do I leave my mark on my own world? How can I avoid being just another blip in time, a lost soul devoured by these great places and people from times before? And you begin to feel alone.

John Donne declared that men are not islands, but pieces of a whole land, and when one is affected, we all are affected. I tend to disagree. I think what Donne spoke of was true for his generation but doesn’t hold water today. I believe mankind has turned into islands, tiny islands isolated from one another, kept apart by technology and distraction, content to float alone until necessity warrants a trip to another nearby island, but only for a brief moment because the wifi signal doesn’t reach that far.

Since it was my generation that started this continental separation, I believe it is up to my generation to piece it back together. Traveling by oneself, while isolating and lonely at times, is a way to do just that. We leave our islands, say goodbye to our comforts and set out to look upon new sights and new faces. Traveling teaches us to build bridges and boats. Slowly but surely we begin to connect with others again, without a screen, or written messages but face-to-face, organically, how Donne’s people did it.

We have entered the tech era and fully embraced all its pros and cons. We mustn’t forget to look up and make eye contact and talk to the person next to you, or even just offer them a smile. That is how we leave our impact on the world. For all of us regular Joes and Janes, we probably won’t cure cancer or create an invention that is iphone-equivalent in its impact but we can still matter. We can still be less alone. We can still construct bridges out of good actions and desire to learn and willingness to share. Don’t forget that. Don’t ever forget that you don’t have to be lonely even if your physical state is, at present, alone.

Leaving is the best and worst thing you will do throughout your trip.

Leaving a place, any place – be it your home, your hostel, your town or the town you are briefly visiting – always and forever feels bittersweet. Your mind is a jumble of emotions, switching back and forth from excitement to anxiety to energetic to nostalgic for a place you have just begun to depart. But that bittersweet feeling remains the strongest of all. It invades your thoughts as you lay your head on the cool pillow, trying desperately to get one last good night’s sleep in the place called home for the past few days. You will most likely fail to get that sweet shut-eye and instead only accomplish the restless sleep of one with expectations and nervousness on their mind. Rest assured dear traveler, you will sleep on the train; drifting off in a reminiscent state, a smile tugging at the corners of your mouth as you recall that late night, over priced, wine soaked, pedicab tour of Rome.

Leaving, departing, taking off, hittin’ that ole’ dusty trail – God it’s so bittersweet. You are so much yourself because of the place you just occupied. You left drops of sweat on the ground as you waited in the hot sun, footprints on the dirt paths you strolled along, memories in the minds of those you shared conversation with, paper receipts of goods bought; each atom stays where you left it, if only for a split second. You have swapped pieces of your soul with pieces of a place. You are not empty because of the skin you shed, but instead, you are changed, forever. You now carry with you new luggage, new earth and air and water and experience. That is why leaving is always bittersweet. You have lost and gained. You have traded a part of you for a part of someone or something else and now that new shiny piece fills the hole that you created by leaving and you aren’t quite used to the new replacement.

Like a freshly planted flower, it takes time for the dirt to settle, for the roots to take hold, but after a while, the flower becomes part of the landscape like everything else beside it. You will learn to love leaving, to crave it, to depart in happiness with only a hint of that bittersweet feeling tugging at your soul. Acknowledge that feeling and allow it to stay there. Like dark chocolate, or strong coffee – it’s a taste you learn to love. It’s a taste that leaves a dry chalky, yet smooth and unique taste in your mouth and on your lips. It’s a taste that leaves you thirsting for more.

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